If you’ve heard of North Macedonia, then it’s probably for their long name disputes with Greece. But Skopje, North Macedonia has a very long and complicated history. From debating its history, culture, and language rights with Greece, Bulgaria, and Serbia. To earthquakes, occupiers, and wars destroying the majority of historical sites. So why go to North Macedonia?
We spent a week in Skopje, the capital of North Macedonia, and were fascinated by the cultural blend that resulted from the influence of its surrounding countries and previous occupiers. Moreover, we were taken aback by the perplexing outcome of the project that turned Skopje into the most unusual European capital. But North Macedonia’s riches lie not in the extravagant-looking capital but in natural treasures, with so many places to explore that you don’t see in the media. And North Macedonia is small, so you can cover a lot of ground! In this post, we will share all of the best things to do in Skopje and unique places to visit in North Macedonia.
Macedonia Square is the best place to properly introduce you to Skopje. The first thing you’ll notice is the grand statue of Alexander the Great, towering over the square, about eight stories tall. This is just one of the maaaany statues you’ll see sprinkled all over town. There is no official count, but it is said to be over 200! We dare you to count them all during your visit. You probably went too far if you haven’t seen a statue in 50 meters.
The amount of statues is due to the project initiated in 2014 by Prime Minister Nicola Gruevski. He decided to dress existing buildings into neoclassical-style facades to make the city more appealing to foreign visitors. However, since the project was never finished, the result looks like an architectural mishmash, not in unison with each other.
The lack of consistency and the number of statues can be quite overwhelming. Most structures are falling apart, and most are covered in paint and graffiti. This happened during the Color Revolution in 2016 when the dissatisfied locals threw paint at the statues, considering them an inappropriate use of their taxes.
But tourists find the quirkiness attractive, and the statues have earned Skopje the nickname “the city of statues.” Of course, taking walking tours is always the best way to get acquainted with a new place, but in Skopje, it’s an absolute must because somebody has to explain what the hundreds of statues mean.
The Four Bridges of Skopje, North Macedonia
And believe it or not, there is an order to this statue chaos. Four pedestrian bridges connect Skopje’s two parts divided by the Vardar river – the Stone Bridge, the Bridge of Civilizations, the Bridge of Art, and the Bridge of Freedom.
The Bridge of Civilizations, the Bridge of Art, and the Bridge of Freedom are decorated with statues of artists, musicians, philosophers, warriors, and rulers. Without knowing this, and the number of mixed-style statues around, you’d be forgiven to think it’s just another bridge with random characters.
The stone bridge, however, has been spared. There is one statue of swimmers at the foot of the bridge, but otherwise, it’s statue-free, perhaps because this bridge survived since the 6th century, even after being on the verge of destruction during WW II.
Skopje, North Macedonia Old Bazaar
Taking the bridge across to the other side, you end up in Old Town or the Old Bazaar. This Bazaar is the second largest in Europe after the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul. The Ottoman influence is especially evident here, a refreshing change of scenery after the intense downtown. This is the best place to explore local shops and pick up some artisanal crafts and Turkish coffee!
Mother Teresa Memorial House
Mother Teresa was born in Skopje, so after her death, the city erected a modern Memorial House in the place where once was a church where Mother Teresa was baptized. You guessed it, there is a statue, of course. And the city is covered in golden plaques with Mother Teresa’s quotes.
Vodno Hill near Skopje
To see Skopje from up high, you can take the cable car up to Vodno Hill or the scenic hiking route. The top of the hill is adorned with a 66-meter cross, the highest in the world at the time of being built.
The Matka Canyon is the best and closest day trip to do while staying in Skopje. It takes only 30 minutes to get there, and the views are breathtaking. You can take a boat ride on the river or a kayak, a much more impressive way to feel dwarfed by the grandeur of the cliffs on either side. The air was cool, the fog was mesmerizing, and the boat ride up the narrow canyon was our favorite memory of our time in Macedonia.
Along the river, there are several caves, but the Vrelo cave is the only one accessible to tourists. Separated into three zones, one has perfect acoustics, one has stalactites that make your imagination run wild, and one with a deep underground lake.
When you travel here, be sure to take the boat ride!
Ohrid, North Macedonia
Ohrid is a city 3 hours from Skopje, and while Skopje is trying too hard to impress, Ohrid takes your breath away with its natural beauty. Lake Ohrid, the star of the show, is one of the deepest lakes in Europe and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It attracts tourists with its glistening blue hues and clear water, willow-draped boardwalks, and terracotta roofs.
To do Ohrid justice, we recommend staying a couple of nights, taking a boat to explore villages and churches around the lake, hiking, and swimming.
Galicica National Park
Hopefully, you took our advice to stay the weekend in Ohrid, because to fully enjoy Galicica National Park you need half a day. This is one of the three national parks in North Macedonia. The main highlight is the peak Magaro which sits at 2,255 meters and simultaneously offers a view of Lake Ohrid and Lake Prespa.
If you crave more hikes, take a trip to Pelister National Park, about two hours from Galicica, which is the oldest and biggest national park in North Macedonia. Or, upon your return to Skopje, visit Mavrovo National Park, just an hour and a half away.
On another day trip from Ohrid, you should visit the village Trpejca. The tiny village is nicknamed the local Saint-Tropez due to the influx of tourists in the summer. There is very little going on, which is why it’s the perfect place to seek peace and take seriously gorgeous photos.
Macedonian Wine Tasting
North Macedonia is full of unexpected surprises, and here is one more. According to archeological findings, Macedonians have been making wine since the 13th century BC! If that is not testimony enough to the quality of North Macedonian wine, then we recommend you visit a winery for a tasting and experience it for yourself.
Tikves wine district is the main wine region in North Macedonia, producing most of the country’s grapes. You should visit the Tikves winery, the oldest and the biggest winery in the country, for a tasting. The two main varieties to look out for are Vranec and Smederevka. The locals say a bottle of Vranec is the true embodiment of Macedonia.
North Macedonian Food
After visiting Sofia, Bulgaria, we found quite a few similarities with the dishes we tried in Skopje, North Macedonia. Of course, some versions of stuffed cabbage rolls, baked beans, pepper spread, filo pastry, and grilled meat can be found throughout the Balkans. But the Balkan countries have rightfully earned their bragging rights for incredibly fresh and flavorsome produce showcased in their dishes. And North Macedonia is no exception, especially when combined with its world-class wines.
Our favorite dishes were the North Macedonian pizza Pastrmajlija, an oval-shaped rustic bread topped with meat and sometimes eggs. And Polneti Piperki – bell peppers stuffed with ground meat and rice.
During your stay in Skopje, North Macedonia you should dine at Vodenica Mulino, which serves traditional North Macedonian dishes in a relaxing garden setting perfect for lunch or dinner.
Gostilnica Dukat is very popular among locals and the dish to try is their fish soup, but come early because they tend to run out!
If you are looking for a fancy dining experience, look no further than the Distrikt Bar & Kitchen at the Marriott on Macedonia Square. It’s an elegant space with delicious signature cocktails and an open kitchen. Their menu highlights the best of North Macedonia in terms of ingredients and sightseeing spot recommendations. Browsing a menu has never been so fun!
A favorite Airbnb
We have stayed in an Airbnb for almost our entire trip. Unfortunately, not all of them live up to their pictures. Our stay in Skopje had everything we hoped for starting with a great host, Branko, who thought of everything! He was responsive and informative, going out of his way to make sure we had all the information we needed to have a wonderful stay in his city. He provided us with links and recommendations, but it didn’t stop there. His apartment had everything we needed. It was luxurious and purposeful, and the best part was it had fast WiFi. It was probably one of our top five of our European adventure of 2022! We highly recommend it!
Our stay in Skopje has been nothing less than fascinating. Of course, anyone interested in architecture or looking for an experience like no other should visit Skopje. But North Macedonia’s emerald mountains and crystal lakes should do the convincing. Their beauty could challenge those of Slovenia, Croatia, and even Italy.
Leave a Reply